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01:988:485 Motherhood: Nature and Culture, Policy, and Politics

This class will draw on memoirs, film, photography, poetry, short stories, and sociological and historical literature to investigate the representations and realities of diverse mothers in the United States. While most women share the biological possibility for pregnancy and childbirth, not all women become mothers, and for those who do (as well as those who cannot or choose not) the choice as well as the experience are profoundly shaped by multiple factors and forces. We will consider historical contexts as well as contemporary policy and politics that shape the experiences of mothers and the ways we interpret and judge their lives and needs. This course will pay attention both to common threads and to the important differences of race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation. The central issues this class will address include: (1) the maternal ideal and who does (and does not) exemplify it; (2) the emotional terrain of motherhood--diverse mothers’ own feelings about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood; (3) the ways that race, class, sexuality, and ethnicity inform the experiences of and resources available to mothers and the construction of motherhood in the United States; (4) the ways that mothers are represented (or represent themselves) in selected films, memoirs, photographs, and how we can “read” these in different historical contexts; (5) the labor of motherhood; and (6) the politics of care. Together we will seek to understand the ways in which a complex and multifaceted cultural discourse about motherhood shapes diverse experiences of motherhood.

Learning Goals

In this course, students will:

  • Gain an understanding of the literature of motherhood studies.
  • Come to understand the ways in which motherhood in the United States has been constructed over time through complex social, cultural and discursive forces.
  • Learn to appreciate the manner in which the representations of motherhood, advice to mothers, and experiences of motherhood vary depending on historical period as well as race, class, marital status, sexuality, and ethnicity within US society.
  • Learn to analyze the representations and experiences of motherhood as sites for negotiating and contesting important social and political questions including: women’s place in society; the role of the family; the privilege of whiteness, heterosexuality, citizenship, and middle class; the authority of experts; the idea of “the feminine”; the question of who should give care.

Department Learning Goals

In addition, in accordance with the learning goals of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, this course strives to enable students to develop their talents in oral and written communication and in critical analysis of words and the world. Toward that end, student presentations in class and written assignments are designed to achieve the following learning goals.

  • Understand and critique the formation of categories of gender and sexuality as they function in social, economic, cultural and/or political contexts and as they intersect with other categories of difference such as race and ethnicity.
  • Communicate effectively using gender analytics as a tool for academic research, for creative production, for collaborative work, and/or for practices of social change.
  • Know the complexity and variety of differently gendered lives and livelihoods around the globe.
  • Recognize stereotypes and the naturalization of hierarchies of difference through analyzing power dynamics from the micro to the macro level.
  • Identify the politics of issue framing and knowledge production.

Contact Us

Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building
162 Ryders Lane
New Brunswick, NJ 08901


P  848/932-9331
F  732/932-1335
E  womenstudies@womenstudies.rutgers.edu